Note: this article contains Oblivion spoilers throughout.
When Oblivion came out in cinemas earlier this year, the critical consensus appeared to be that, like director Joseph Kosinski’s previous film, Tron: Legacy, his latest science fiction film was an exercise in style over substance. In fact, Googling the words “Joseph Kosinski style over substance” will bring up thousands of reviews and other web posts that describe the film in those terms.
It’s unfortunate that Kosinski couldn’t have somehow directed Oblivion before Tron: Legacy – if he had, then maybe the critical response to Oblivion would have been rather different. Because while Legacy was indeed a visually spectacular but narratively thin movie, Oblivion is more complex and resonant. It’s flawed, certainly, and also derivative, but I can’t help but feel that the accusation of it being a shallow film is somewhat wide of the mark. It’s undoubtedly a stylish film, but there’s also a very human story tucked away in here, too – one that becomes all the more noticeable on repeat viewings.
For a film reliant on huge vistas, Oblivion’s actually a quite intimate in terms of its cast. In a future where an alien invasion has been repelled but at a terrible cost to the Earth itself, humanity’s mere weeks away from leaving its home planet for good, and setting up a new life on a terraformed moon orbiting Saturn.
Tom Cruise plays Jack, a futuristic soldier and service engineer who flies down from his remote control tower and posh flat in the clouds, and services the patrol drones that occasionally break down on the Earth’s surface. The drones have been designed to keep at bay the Scavs, a breed of alien left behind from the failed invasion. Back at the control tower, Jack’s partner and lover Victoria ‘Vika’ Olsen (Andrea Riseborough) oversees the terrain from her command station, a fancy touchscreen interface from which she receives mission updates from Sally (Melissa Leo), a friendly management type on the Tet – the ship which will soon be leaving for Saturn with the remains of humanity aboard.
In spite of the promise of a happier new life elsewhere, Jack has the feeling that not everything’s quite right. He has dreams of a life he never had and a woman he never met – something to do with the Empire State Building and Olga Kurylenko – and can’t shake his desire to live in a log cabin by a lake.
In true Philip K Dick style, nothing in Jack’s life is as it appears. A crashed spaceship containing the woman from Jack’s dreams – Julia (Kurlenko) – is the trigger for a series of paradigm-shifting revelations. The Scavs aren’t aliens, but surviving humans. The Tet isn’t an ark containing Earth’s final dregs of humanity, but a vast artificial alien intelligence. Jack and Vika are clones made by the aliens; formerly soldiers who helped conquer Earth, they work as oblivious service engineers for the various machines now stripping the planet of its remaining resources.
Jack and Vika aren’t the only clones, either – the planet’s covered in copies of them, each with their own outpost, segregated by a so-called ‘radiation zone’ which prevents them from accidentally bumping into each other.
The plot of Oblivion is much more complicated than this – I haven’t even mentioned how Jack, Vika and Julia were once astronauts in 2017 – but it’s sufficient to say that, once Jack discovers the reality of the alien occupation, he finds a way to stop it in its tracks. In the process, he saves humanity from destruction by drones, destroys the evil Tet, and although he sacrifices himself in the process, one of his clones eventually steps in to become a husband and father to Julia and their young daughter.
Although Oblivion ends on a note of triumph, it quietly forgets about Vika. As played by Andrea Riseborough, she’s a slightly frosty yet capable and witty woman who seems perfectly content with her comfortable, slightly soulless life with Jack. It’s only in the second half of the story that we find out why she behaves the way she does – and in particular, why she’s so reluctant to find out more about what’s going down on Earth’s surface (“It’s our job not to remember, remember?”).
Like Jack, her emotional responses have carried over from her previous life as an astronaut. In that existence, Jack was married to fellow space traveller Julia, and he seemed entirely unaware that Vika was in love with him, too. Just as the cloned Jack is haunted by vague memories of the woman he loved, so Vika is still quietly besotted with Jack.
In fact, Vika’s character arc through the film is the opposite to everyone else’s. Where everyone else is looking for completion (either through getting back with their loved one, or freeing themselves from alien tyranny), Vika already has what she wants, and then loses it. She’s alone with the man she loves in her perfect apartment in the clouds, with nothing to come between them aside from the occasional malfunctioning drone.
Yet even here, there’s a cloud on the horizon. Jack’s dissatisfaction with this false reality means that their equilibrium is constantly under threat. The aliens closely monitor Vika and Jack’s relationship for any sign of a fracture – “Are you an effective team” is a daily mantra, a test to see if their false relationship’s still hanging together. There’s even a killer drone waiting in the basement, ready to spring into life at the first evidence of a break-up.
Julia’s arrival, and the sequence of events that follows, results in tragedy for Vika. In one brilliantly played scene, we see just how threatened Vika feels when Jack suddenly shows up with Julia, still asleep in a her cryotube. Vika doesn’t remember enough to know exactly what’s going on, but she knows that it’s the beginning of the end for their relationship – it’s all in Riseborough’s brilliantly wounded, vulnerable performance.
We never learn exactly how many Jacks and Vikas there are dotted over the planet, but we can safely assume it’s at least 52, since the towers are all numbered. We see the Vika in Tower 49 destroyed by the gunfire of a drone, as her anger and jealousy causes her to blurt out the fateful words, “We are not an effective team…”
For the other remaining Vikas, there’s more tragedy. With the Jack from Tower 52 united with Julia in his lakeside cabin at the end of the movie, the Vika he was once partnered with is presumably still in her house among the clouds, all alone. Then there are the other Jacks and Vikas scattered over the rest of the planet, now without a mission to carry out. Each Jack potentially yearning for a Julia he can’t have. Each Vika essentially doomed to love a man who will never love her in return.
As I said at the top of this post, Oblivion isn’t a flawless film, but neither is it the empty vessel its detractors have suggested. For one thing, its possible subtext – about a soldier tricked into carrying out a drone war by a faceless ruler intent on stripping the planet of resources – is quite subversive, should you choose to see it that way. There’s a certain melancholy poetry in its story of a husband and wife reunited after decades apart. And then there’s Vika, a quietly tragic character whose sad fate – like Riseborough’s performance, which is arguably the best in the film – is so easily overlooked on first viewing. There’s a meditation here, perhaps, about how love is part of what makes us human, but also what makes us vulnerable.
Full of expansive landscapes, high-tech graphics and bombastic music though it is, it’s these moments that, I’d argue, stick in the mind once Oblivion’s finished – and that’s really not something you’d expect from an exercise in style over substance.
Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.